I arrive home from National Conference on Friday night filled with thunder, frustration, desperation, and drink. From the train and then onto the bus from Queen St through to the Southside, I concocted paragraphs in my head, screeds of prose, willing myself home quicker so I could batter away at my poor abused keyboard and pour out the swirling contents of my cranium. I got home, took off my shoes, then promptly zonked out on the bed.
I’m glad I did. Conference nowadays is already a heady pressure cooker, 2000+ folk crammed into a medium-sized concert hall and a tent, shuffling around looking for a seat in an overcrowded cafe, snaking past the exhibitors at a pace that prohibits nicking out for a “quick” fag. Add some free wine from some reception or other, and you can feel the wee-est things becoming irksome. And the vote and debate on NATO was anything but wee. I’m glad I’ve had the last 48 hours to unwind a bit, enjoy time (and more drink) with friends new and old, and give the gecks a good clean, before committing my thoughts to a web server.
I voted No to NATO until the bitter end. By which I mean not only did I back the key amendment which would have maintained party policy, but also voted to reject the motion in its entirety, and to remit the proposal back for proper, in-depth discussion and consultation within the party. I would do the same if we ever meet as a party to discuss the issue again. My opinions haven’t changed a bit. I abide by the constitutional collective decision-making of the SNP, and am bound by the decision taken, as are we all.
What was clear from the result is that the activists voted No to NATO. A majority of those of us who don’t earn a living from the party backed the amendment. Every Government minister supported the resolution. A majority of MSPs did likewise. My impression (and it is only that) is that a majority of the researchers, interns, assistants etc followed the leadership – although a substantial minority did not, in the same way our MSPs contained people with the fortitude of Jamie Hepburn, Rob Gibson, and Sandra White, to name but three. But the volunteers said no.
It’s the first time our payroll vote has had to be rolled into action. Iain Macwhirter called the outcome of the NATO debate “The day the SNP lost its innocence”, when we “compromised its principles for the sake of political expediency.” I think the loss of innocence is wider than the straight-up outcome of a single vote. We’ve never had a period in our history when so many depend on the party and its apparatus for the means to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. I joined when we had 3 MPs (shortly to increase by 33% thanks to a by-election win in Perth), 2 MEPs, a couple of hundred councillors and no Holyrood. There were maybe 20 people employed by MPs, MEPs and the Westminster Group, excluding those at HQ involved in the day-to-day administration of the party machinery. Shadow Ministers were using annual leave from their day jobs to discharge their political role. We are in a very different situation now, and you can increase that number around 12-fold as a minimum. That those bodies were key to Friday’s outcome is unprecedented in the party’s history.
Other parties have been in a similar situation for years. We haven’t. Please don’t misconstrue this as a rant against those higher up the pecking order than I. This is not a case of a bitter loser conjuring up visions of folk threatened with P45s for exercising independent thought. I can’t and don’t doubt the motives and reasoning behind those who backed the Angus² alliance. It’s about the numbers of cards counted for and against the proposals. For the first time, a motion backed by a majority of the rank-and-file delegates, the people who give up their time and effort of their own volition – rather than being contractually obliged to – did not pass Conference. That is a major change for a movement which has been extra-parliamentary and deeply tied to the concept of a member-led, branch-centered formal decision making process.
Will it lead to mass cancellations of membership? No. Will it lead to an outbreak of Maoism across the SNP, researchers and press officers bombarded by rotten tomatoes? No. We will move on as a party, concentrating our full energies and resources on the 24 month campaign ahead. But on Friday, something about the party and its internal mechanics, tedious and boring to the outsider, but a core tenet of our practicality of belief, changed, quite possibly forever.
Time will tell what the implications of that sea-change are.